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BEIJING 2008 : BASEBALL

Lefebvre leads Chinese team

August 18, 2008|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- When Jim Lefebvre was asked to set the foundation for a national baseball program in China, there was never any doubt it was only a temporary job.

"It was a one-shot deal," the former Dodgers infielder said.

That was five years ago. Now, Lefebvre has spent so much time in China since, he has learned to speak the language.

"Well, one year led to the next year. And now I'm their Olympic coach," Lefebvre said. "It's been a tremendous challenge."

That challenge comes to a head tonight here when the upstart Chinese, already the surprise of the Beijing baseball tournament, take on a struggling U.S. squad that needs a win to have any shot at advancing to the medal round.

For China, which has already beaten Chinese Taipei and held unbeaten South Korea scoreless through 10 innings Sunday before falling, 1-0, the goal wasn't as much to win a medal as it was to prove its mettle.

"What we're trying to do is build a future, the future of baseball in China, by going to the Olympics, getting exposure," said Lefebvre, the 1965 National League rookie of the year. "And hopefully if we play well, then we're going to jump-start the sport."

And if that happens, it won't be long before there will be more than enough gold to go around. That's because many in Major League Baseball, which sent Lefebvre to China in the first place, believe the world's most populous country will soon be a rich source of baseball talent.

More than a year ago, the New York Yankees began an exchange program with the Chinese Baseball Assn. and signed a sponsorship deal with a dairy company in China, hoping to foster the kind of relationship there that the Dodgers established in the Dominican Republic when they became the first team to plant a flag in that baseball hotbed.

Last year, the Yankees and Seattle Mariners each signed a pair of Chinese players. The Dodgers have been dabbling in China for more than two decades, staging clinics and building fields before playing a series of exhibitions in Beijing last spring.

"Baseball is still a young sport in China," said Lefebvre, who compares the talent level on his team to a high Class-A minor league, such as the California League. "And the more they learn about it, the more that they become successful, when it catches fire it's going to be big.

"They have great athletes. They saw the enormous impact that one man, Yao Ming, had on basketball. And now they want to do the same thing in baseball."

It's unlikely that man will come from this team, although Lefebvre, who managed three big league clubs, is high on catcher Wei Wang and left-hander Tao Bu. Both played in the World Baseball Classic, in which China was routed.

But although the Olympic roster has many of the same names, this isn't the same team.

"They have come a long way," said Randy Smith, director of international scouting for the San Diego Padres. "But [they] still have miles to go."

And now, with the challenge in China almost met, Lefebvre, 66, is preparing to return to his job as a minor league hitting instructor with the San Diego Padres. But he's leaving quite a legacy behind -- one that would grow tenfold with a win tonight.

"The greatest compliment I can have is to know that someday China will be a power, which I think they will be," he said. "When they put their mind to something, they can do almost anything. To know that you had an impact obviously makes you feel really good."

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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